Dilemmas of Planning Backwards: Rescuing a Good Idea

Published: 1993 by Joe McDonald

Some ideas make too much sense. One is the idea that we can improve schools by holding them accountable for the right outcomes. This is the idea behind the work of the National Goals Panel, behind various proposals to institute national testing systems, behind many states' school restructuring plans, and behind most district superintendents' reform and improvement efforts. It even plays a role within schools themselves, being the idea that grips many principals preparing for next year, and at least some teachers preparing for next week.

It is a good idea, inasmuch as it seeks to reorient schools from a focus on their own smooth running to a focus on kids' learning.1 The problem is that its intuitive appeal may distract us from its inherent dilemmas. This is especially so given the public policy habits that haunt us: our tendency to privilege perspectives at the top of whatever policy chain we think we are dealing with, and our tendency to discount the practical powers vested in what we take to be the chain's links. We fool ourselves into thinking that these practical powers are the inconsequential noise of an otherwise predictable mechanism: the buzz of a hierarchy passing down the word, the hum of a market mechanism sorting out the winners. The effect is a great seepage of policy effort and, in the case of school reform, recurrent cycles of failure.2 Meanwhile, we cheapen our own sense of what it means to acquire or elaborate the vision behind worthwhile goals, to wield power effectively, to respond predictably within a complex system, and to undergo real change rather than some convenient imitation of it.

How can we save a good idea? How can we rescue the possibility of genuine directedness and accountability in schooling? We might begin by applying an alternative policymaking strategy advocated by Richard Elmore (1979??80), one he calls "backward mapping." It starts ?© counter-intuitively -at the outer edge of policy's influence, with an effort to describe the behavioral reality a potential policy will seek to affect. Then it proceeds to imagine -from the outer edge inward, but at only the key junctures -what organizational efforts might affect that behavioral reality in the right way. Finally, it leaves room at each juncture for the bargaining and adaptation that the juncture's peculiar dilemmas will demand.

In the Coalition of Essential Schools, we have begun to explore a variation of this policymaking strategy that we call planning backwards.3 It aims to help our member schools respond thoughtfully to the pervasive critique of the American high school, while avoiding the crippling naivete of "forward" perspectives on change. It substitutes a democratic view of goal-setting, standard-setting, and accountability for a hierarchical one. In this alternative view, these activities are the continual and central functions of keeping school, in which all stakeholders must participate and to which all structures must respond.

Viewed backwards, an effort to turn out graduates who use their minds well depends upon more than good intentions at the top of a policy chain and rigorous testing schemes at the bottom. Our research and experience in the Coalition suggest that it also involves wrestling with at least five practical dilemmas.4 These dilemmas arise at various junctures in the effort to tune a school to the right effects and are visible only looking backwards; that is, only from the perspective of the school.

In what follows, I describe these five dilemmas as if they were each framed by a pair of choices. These are not discrete choices like two-way switches, however. Each pair defines a continuum of choices. Think of soundlevel levers on a stereo: as in stereo sound, the best solutions to the dilemmas of planning backwards are in a balance preserved through continual adjustment. This balance demands in all cases what is called restructuring, particularly restructuring designed to create greater collaboration. But it also demands a certain quality of school ethos, as I will suggest below.

Dilemma 1: Outcomes or Exhibitions?

Teaching is a narrative activity. I do not mean that teaching is like storytelling; I mean that teaching is a kind of story itself -that the moves and thoughts of teaching are ordered by a narrative flow rather than by some other kind of logic (Connelly & Clandinin, 1988; Egan, 1986). This is true of all kinds of teaching, good and bad, on all levels of schooling. Some teaching, though, is like the endless narratives that some seventh-graders spin -where the point seems just to show that the writer can go on and on, though the reader gets quickly exasperated. The opposite of teaching the way a seventh-grader writes is to teach the way Toni Morrison writes, every stretch of her narrative flow consumed by purpose while no less flowing. Many who argue for more purposeful schools promote purpose without flow, whereas the trick is to get them together from the beginning. Toni Morrison surely does not outline her novels before she writes them; she must begin instead with images of what a particular novel will do if it really works, how it will sound as a text, what shape it may take -images that both compel flow and direct it.5

Setting goals for any narrative activity -whether novel-writing or teaching -demands a method conducive to flow. Lists of goals, phrased as competencies or behavioral objectives (what I call the discourse of outcomes), should play a part in the process, but they are not enough. One reason is that, as lists, they do not readily mix with something as dynamic as a week of the third grade or of Spanish II. Moreover, they often run out of control. Nearly everyone in education has laughed at one time or another at somebody's hyperrational list of behavioral objectives -the fortyfive key traits of reading competence or some such. One cannot get one's teaching mind around such lists.

An alternative is to frame goals by means of exhibitions. The term, associated with the work of the Coalition of Essential Schools, derives from what Theodore Sizer (1964) dubbed the Age of the Academies. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, secondary students were expected to show their communities what they could do with the learning they had acquired at community expense.6 Grant Wiggins (1987a, 1987b, 1989) associates "exhibition" with the use of performance-based or authentic assessment, but uses the term to signify not only the assessment that warrants the achievement of the goal, but also the goal itself. He sometimes compares exhibitions to sporting events, reminding us that a soccer game is only an assessment in the most marginal sense. It is more directly and simply an occasion for soccer performance and, while it still lies ahead on a team's schedule, a call for excellent performance. Similarly, Sizer (1990) asks us to imagine the final exhibition and let it cast its shadow back over everything else. The remark is only indirectly about assessment; more basically, it entreats teachers to begin their work by imagining their students as they would have them become. So an exhibition is a school's deliberate effort to imagine its candidates for graduation using their minds as it hoped they would: a performance situation, framed first in the mind's eye of the faculty, designed to entice.

One school in the Coalition, for example, thinks that its graduates ought to be able to read difficult texts, discuss them thoughtfully, and use them to generate fresh ideas in writing. So it imagines an exhibition in which all its seniors will be handed three readings -say, the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, Rebecca Harding Davis's Life in the Iron Mills, and Tolstoy's "How Much Land Does a Man Need?" A week later, they will all gather in a ninety minute seminar-exhibition, two teachers and twelve seniors to a group. All will have done a careful reading -some with the help of a reading coach. All will engage vigorously in the discussion, building on each others' ideas, showing respect for the text and to each other, and demonstrating intellectual interest and power. Following the seminar, the seniors will head for the school's computer labs to prepare written responses. These will refer generously to the texts, but will center on the meanings the texts hold for the seniors' own lives. They will be the work of imaginative and competent writers.

Another school imagines a different setting: a May schedule of senior recitals. Each senior will present the results of an interdisciplinary inquiry he or she has developed and pursued over the course of an entire year, an inquiry that has involved the community as well as the library, one that has required observation, interviews, experimentation, research. Each inquiry will hang on a single question: Why do fashions change? Is our water safe to drink? At the recital, the senior will present findings orally and by means of graphic displays, then stand for hard questions from an audience of peers, teachers, parents, and outside experts. Each will handle the questions and the stress of the questioning in ways that make the teachers proud -the math teacher who hears traces of quantitative thinking, the history teacher who hears evidence of historical imagination, the art teacher who detects an aesthetic sense, the advisor who knows exactly how far this senior has come.

Having imagined such exhibitions, these schools struggle to make them actual -planning backwards. The struggle encompasses all the school's plans, all the way back to the student's first day in high school. What habits must teachers seek to instill, what experiences must students have so that they can perform these tasks well before they leave high school?7

The origins of an exhibition should involve lists of desired outcomes, compiled from many sources: the state's goals, the district's goals, the goals suggested by various blue-ribbon panels of various scholarly and political agencies -the more the better. But these lists must also be cooked to extract their essences, to activate them. What one wants in one's mind's eye is the food on the plate, elegantly prepared and served, not item banks for food groups.

There are several good ways to cook lists of outcomes. Wiggins (1986, 1988), for example, suggests boiling them down to "essential questions," questions which deal with core concerns within domains of knowledge, and so subsume lists. What is the difference between prose and poetry? What is an adequate proof? Questions like these entail many objectives for teaching literature and mathematics, but the best of them also stimulate the pedagogical imagination, provoke us to see kids struggling with them and us helping.

Eliot Wigginton (1986) proposes another method, involving questions devised by students. In contrast to Wiggins's essential questions, Wigginton's students' questions can seem trivial-- What is the oldest tombstone in Rabun County? What does an embalmer do? Wigginton, however, demonstrates how the skillful teacher may harness such questions to a bigger load. Show me, he asks his own students, how in answering your question you may prove you can plan a significant project, conduct a sophisticated inquiry, write an interesting report; and show me besides how you will tackle along the way some of the curriculum objectives mandated by the State of Georgia.8

Meanwhile, Wigginton asks his questions in a classroom stuffed with the artifacts of former students' inquiries: quilts and tools and hundreds of other collected artifacts, shoeboxes stuffed with old interview notes, essays published by Double-day -tokens of a living, twentyfive year Foxfire exhibition of student excellence. Similarly, a teacher in one Essential school sends off his students to hunt for plant and insect specimens from a classroom filled with the superb quarry of twenty years of earlier hunts. His students see upfront the authenticity of the tasks they undertake; like their teacher, they imagine a moving picture of their own success, whose denouement is the ceremony in which one more insect is added to their classroom's "Bug Hall of Fame." As images from an exhibition should, these images provoke excellence as well as record it.

So Wiggins, Wigginton, and others, too, who have tried to reconcile teaching's narrative qualities with accountability, include lists of outcomes, but provide the flow that lists miss. The resulting discourse of "exhibitions" -moving images of what students might become -has several advantages over the static discourse of outcomes. As mentioned above, it moves teachers and students. In addition, it honors the recursiveness of human knowledge -the fact that intellectual achievements are points of reference in the continuing struggle to maintain intellectual power, not items that can be checked off and done with.

Dilemma 2: Local or Remote Authority?

Schooling is all about values, though we often pretend otherwise. We imagine instead that the things we call knowledge, competence, and skills exist in a universe apart from the fractious universe of values. Thus, we often fail to worry enough about who gets to set and keep the school's goals and standards, who gets to imagine the final exhibition and certify its achievement. How much power, for example, should the individual teacher have in determining what students should strive to know and be able to do and in evaluating their efforts? The evidence is abundant that the bulk of the power does indeed rest there now (though, of course, within a system fairly inattentive to goals) (Johnson, 1990).

Efforts to create a more goal driven system often seek to shift the power to state or district authorities, instead, and to even more remote entities -the National Assessment of Educational Progress, for example, or the National Center on Education and the Economy. Such a shift can leave out a vast middle -school faculties setting goals and standards together, for example, or (much better) joined by parents and other members of the local community, including the community's own scholars and those particularly interested in preserving local culture. That is not to say that the more remote entitites mentioned above are not stakeholders, too. They are, and should be involved ?© which is to suggest, as I said at the start of this essay, that goal setting is a lot more complicated than it first appears.

It is not surprising that we would seriously entertain the idea of establishing a national curriculum in the U.S. before we had ever really established a local one -one, that is, which is more than a mask across the fact that teachers usually teach what they want behind their own closed doors. It is not surprising because the task of achieving local consensus in planning backwards is a daunting one. It demands habits of assertion and negotiation rare in most American institutions and communities, a delicate sorting of interests within frequently indelicate public settings, the invention of forums and mechanisms foreign to the existing system, and much more openness to outside perspectives than schools typically show. It also demands suspension of the old school habit to talk about curriculum and structure rather than about goals and standards.

Recently I attended a high school meeting where serious and painful tensions arose among several factions of teachers and parents, despite their common interest in planning backwards. The main issue of contention, baldly put, was whether the school's curricular capstone ought to include Advanced Placement courses. Some parents -proud that their minority kids within this "majority minority" school had reversed two decades of academic decline, proud that their kids were skillful and committed enough to work at what is often thought to be the curricular peak of high school -wanted AP courses. Some faculty, on the other hand, argued heatedly that curricular differentiation among seniors would inevitably encourage tracking in the earlier years and so destroy one of the pillars of the reform effort that had turned the school around.

I can imagine a solution to this school's problem that would satisfy both interests by attending first to common goals and standards rather than course offerings and curriculum. I imagine it, however, outside the contextual and political circumstances that led this particular group to its stalemate, outside the heatedness of an encounter steamed by personal animosities and institutional racism. My point is not that the participants could never imagine such a solution themselves, but that imagining it and implementing it inside a real context and amid real heat is very difficult.

I believe, on the other hand, that there is no good substitute for working out such problems on the local level, whatever the heat. Attempts to circumvent the local -for example, by means of decision making at "higher" levels (let the district or state decide about AP offerings and about common goals and standards) -will remove not only the pain that principal stakeholders must endure in order to work it out themselves, but also the sense among them that the issue really matters. The people in the group I observed fought hard among themselves because they shared a great investment in their school; if one were to strip them of the power to decide such issues, I believe one would in short order drain off the investment. Ultimately the power that a school community feels in relation to its school is power that students will bring to the task of learning there and teachers will bring to the task of teaching there. When remote others make all the important decisions, then the school's kids and its teachers inherit the powerlessness of their community and often the by-products of powerlessness -indifference or hostility.

In the end, all remote sources of knowledge that bear on the case I witnessed or any other local case of planning backwards will be mediated locally anyway, or else ignored (McLaughlin, 1990). The National Academy of Science, the Business Roundtable, the New York State Regents, or the College Board can benefit local kids only if local school communities, including especially school faculties, actually use the perspectives these remote agencies provide. Try as they may, the agencies will never successfully compel use, though they may indirectly compel the continuation of closed door teaching.

I believe that the only way to resolve successfully this second dilemma of planning backwards -though it demands much restructuring on every level of educational policymaking -is to focus authority for goal- and standard-setting at the only level where critical reflection, informed conversation, and practical insight may mingle. This is not behind the closed doors of individual teachers' classrooms, nor at the state or national level, but at the level of the school community. Here the whole faculty must collaborate in the process if planning backwards is to amount to anything more than business as usual. Teachers must risk opening their doors to each other. But they will also need more than each other -they will require the assistance as well of district officials, parents, and other community members. Furthermore, the state will have to moderate the processes of goal- and standard-setting, and of standard-keeping, in order to ensure that a statewide commitment to excellence and equity is upheld and that the input of remote others, including scholarly and economic entities, is taken into account.

Dilemma 3: Stiff Standards or Flexible Ones?

If one views intelligence as a unitary gift from the gene pool, and culture as a treasure of defined proportions, then there will seem to be no dilemma here at all. From this perspective, a standard simply stands erect in solid ground. It shows how far some people manage to travel, and how far others always lag behind. More complex images of human intelligence and of culture challenge this metaphor, however (Wolf et al., 1991). If we teach culturally diverse students with any thoughtfulness, for example, then we come to question the adequacy in all settings of the standards we met as students ourselves. This does not mean that we necessarily lose all grip on standards (though this may happen), but just that we come to appreciate their inherent variability.

Meanwhile, research on cognition enhances that appreciation. One set of findings claims that intelligence is broader and more complex than we thought (Gardner, 1983; Sternberg, 1988, 1990; Bruner, 1986). Another set of findings suggests that our students' ability to think with a little help, and their ability to contribute to the social cognition that occurs among thinkers working together, are at least as important as their ability to think alone (Vygotsky, 1978; Newman et al., 1989). So we may shift our metaphor for standards from a stiff thing to a more flexible one. Wiggins (1991, p. 19) argues thus: Excellence is not a mere uniform correctness but the ability to unite personal style with mastery of a subject in a product or performance of one's design. There is thus no possible generic test of whether student work is "up to standard." Rather, the "test" of excellence amounts to applying a set of criteria that we infer from various idiosyncratic excellent performances, in the judging of diverse forms of local student work.

How can we know, however, that we have criteria stiff enough to point to excellence, but flexible enough to acknowledge its differences? One good way to find the right balance is to devise ways to mingle cool judgment and warm attachment. Deborah Meier, director of the Central Park East Schools, says a kid has a right to hear first about the inadequacies of her writing from a person who cares for her (personal communication, 1990). I would add that she also has the right to have such judgments tested by caring.9

The point needs illustration. Recently I had a chance to visit a member school of the Coalition of Essential Schools on an afternoon devoted to a process I would call standard-tuning. This school has begun to convene groups of faculty (and, on at least one occasion, outsiders too -local college professors) to engage in practice assessments of student work. Using the school's own generic scoring rubric, the invitees to these sessions score work samples in advance of the meeting, then gather to discuss the similarities and differences among their scores. The purpose of discussion is not to reach consensus on the scores (the student work is old work, already scored). It is rather, as I say, to tune up the teachers' sense of what their own standards mean, through a spirited collegial conversation about how they fit actual pieces of student work.

A number of us present on the afternoon of my visit had given a low score to a nonetheless promising essay about intraracial relations. I admired the author's ambition as I scored her paper, but I thought her execution too feeble for a passing grade. The paper needed more development and more control, I concluded. Then, at the session, I heard her teachers speak -the teachers who had coached her through the paper's composition. The paper had been under construction for years, they asserted. The author was passionately attached to it and likely to continue it years more. Her whole family was invested, too, they added. Her mother had cried when the author presented it before the graduation committee; and the students who heard that presentation were riveted by the reading.

These remarks affected my judgment; they gave me a taste of the real thing. In making an actual judgment, rather than a practice one, the teacher must consider whether, at this moment, the student will profit more from an encouraging word or a critical one. This is true even in high-stakes judgments -when, for example, graduation hinges on the outcome. Questions of teaching and questions of standards, though logically distinct as well as distinctly important, are never really detached from each other in practice. Some regard this fact of practical life as a source of corruption in maintaining standards. I believe instead that it can be a source of strength, if acknowledged and dealt with. As I admitted above, my judgment of this student's paper was affected by what her teachers had to say about the student herself. I think this is proper: teachers' knowledge should count in the maintenance of standards. On the other hand, my judgment was not altered in the end. I still felt she should not pass. I, along with others present, provided cool judgment to complement her teachers' warm attachments.10

Cool judgment and warm attachment are both needed in the maintenance of standards. But the providers of each must be willing to have their input affected by the other. This is judgment tested by caring/caring tested by judgment. I cannot say, of course, how the vote would have gone had we been the student's actual graduation committee rather than a group tuning standards. But, whatever the outcome, I think the student and her school would have been well served by the process.

To achieve and maintain balance in this third dilemma of planning backwards, a school needs three things. The first is what I observed above: a habit of collaboration in matters of assessment. Only the saintliest teachers are capable of maintaining standards alone -combining coolness and warmth, staying well-tuned.11 The rest of us need partners. The second factor is the right ethos, what we in the Coalition call a pervasive sense of decency and respect. This provides the only context within which teachers and students will take the risks involved.

The third thing needed is a lively, accessible archive of standards -a place apart from the immediacy of classroom life, where teachers, students, and parents may consult vivid examples of work that is up to par, as well as work that is not (Frederiksen & Collins, 1989). Emerging information-technology systems -involving the use of computer-driven multimedia -may provide schools with new ways to capture and display various levels of actual performance (Collins et al., 1990). Good schools, however, have long maintained nontechnological archives of the sort I mean: public performances and recitals in the arts, exhibits in the arts and trades, literary and other publications, science fairs, debates and oratorical contests, literal archives of past student work, even athletic competitions. In the best schools, these are not peripheral to the curriculum, but rather the means by which the curriculum publicly displays its standards.

Dilemma 4: Apartness or Authenticity in Assessment?

Assessment is a continuous feature of teaching itself. As the teacher prods, she also probes. How much do the students know? What have they taken in? What knots are they struggling to tie or untie? The plurals in these questions are deliberate, for much assessment-while-teaching is social assessment -a reading of groups, in which the individual's puzzled look or confused response is a signal for a class check, not a personal one. Even when the teacher manages teaching so as to spend close time with individuals, the assessment typically stays social, the social group being in this case the tutorial pair -an assessment of what the student can do with the teacher's help. This is assessment subordinated to instruction, less interested in where a student stands than in where he or she is moving, a prospective assessment in which the teacher is perfectly willing, for example, to fill out the gaps of an incomplete response if that promises to propel the student forward (Newman et al., 1989).

On the other hand, teachers are expected to know and report where their individual students stand in relation to the school's expectations. This requires an assessment practice apart from teaching -sometimes utterly apart (as in standardized, norm-referenced testing) or else temporally apart (as in criterion-referenced testing that follows teaching just completed).

Apartness comes in other dimensions, too. First, there is apartness from others: traditional assessment practice involves only individually chosen or constructed responses; to work with others is to cheat. Then, there is apartness from the authentic work experience of the domain being tested: traditional assessment relies on indirect measures of learning; that is, it distinguishes individuals' learning within a domain by means of tokens drawn from a deeper, more complex experience that is assumed. Thus, a matching test of words and definitions comes to represent verbal power, and the ability to recall a list of names and dates represents the entire learn-ing experience of a unit on the Civil War or even the capacity to exercise historical imagination in general.

When we speak of problems with school assessment, we typically mean problems associated with this string of apartness features, particularly as they play out in a measurement-hungry society. Consider, for example, the matter of assessing reading skills. That is often done by means of multiple-choice questions directed to brief reading passages extracted from context. This is the method of the standardized testing on which district and state accountability systems typically depend; and it is also the method of much classroom testing, too, where the teacher may rely on commercially prepared questions lifted from textbooks and workbooks. The drawbacks of the method are related to its apartness features -apartness from the more complex demands of reading in the real world and from its social and cultural contexts. If used infrequently, the method can nonetheless gauge students' growth in the larger and more complex skills of authentic reading. Overused, however, it can have disastrous consequences (Frederiksen & Collins, 1989). In many schools, and in whole states at the present, reading has for all practical purposes become the ability to answer correctly multiple-choice questions directed to brief passages extracted from context. This is what teachers teach, as well as how they test. This is what districts and states seem to value (Brown, 1989, 1991).

To deal with the shortcomings of its apartness strategies, some critics of traditional assessment have proposed the use of more "authentic" assessment. This is assessment designed to measure more directly whatever is valued and to fit more smoothly with the teaching of it. In the case of reading, for example, more authentic assessment would seek to measure students' experience with authentic reading, and so might use whole texts, intertextual experiences, constructed responses in various media, portfolio techniques to capture experience across the vagaries of particular texts, and seminar-based methods to capture the social construction of meaning. Moreover, it might be designed to fit unobtrusively within teaching. This is what one advocate of more authentic assessment, Ruth Mitchell (1989), suggests; "If students cannot tell whether they are being taught or tested," she has written, "then the assessment has passed the test."

Wiggins (1989) puts the same thought another way: Let teachers teach to the test, he argues, so long as the test is an authentic one. The argument is appealing from the perspective of planning backwards: if we can only manage to design assessments authentic enough ?© exhibitions that, in fact, have the reach and the dynamism of the exhibitions we imagine in our mind's eye -then teaching will take care of itself. The problem, however, aside from whether we can invent assessments that mirror our goals, is that teaching may take care of itself at a cost -that the warm may dominate the cool. Although I heartily endorse efforts to devise more authentic assessments, and although I think schools will be better for kids when assessment is not so apart from teaching as it is today, nevertheless I am inclined to preserve some apartness.

I recall an incident some years ago. A group of teachers were observing a noted developmental psychologist as she interviewed a child. The psychologist -fully the researcher in this instance, rather than a teacher -wished to know how solidly this child understood her own correct explanation of a particular physical phenomenon. "Are you sure?" the psychologist probed, whereupon the child promptly withdrew the answer. The observing teachers, commenting later on the exchange, were furious with the psychologist -how dare she take away, rather than reinforce, a slender prop of understanding! But as it is in clinical research of this kind, so it often is in assessment, too -sometimes the assessor must dare to discover gaps in understanding without rushing to fill them (Newman et al., 1989). This demands a different kind of energy than teaching does -a stand-apart energy. This kind of apartness in assessment, furthermore, ensures that the student knows when an assessment is occurring and knows therefore that the activity involved has sufficient value to justify an assessment. This is certainly not necessary for every assessment, but it is valuable periodically insofar as it may provoke students to take stock themselves (Wolf, 1990).

In addition, there may be value as well in preserving some amount of apartness between tasks assessed and tasks as they exist authentically in the larger world. That is because authenticity tends to blur distinctions that may be nonetheless important in a student's efforts to grow toward competence. While, for example, authentic writing as defined by published prose rarely exhibits what textbooks call the topic sentence, nonetheless there may be justification at times in assessing whether a student, once taught to recognize a topic sentence, can produce another one herself. Kids are slippery things, Eliot Wigginton says (personal communication, 1990); sometimes they so impress us with the projects they turn out that we overlook the gaps the projects cover up -gaps that may next surface only after the students are gone.

A young teacher in an Essential school grappled with this fourth dilemma of planning backwards in an Earth Science class. The problem concerned a meteorology unit. In her teaching, she had honored the authentic practice of meteorology by requiring her students to work together in the interpretation of data. But now it was time for her to find out what each of them had learned, so that she might know who still needed to learn what. To conduct a traditional test, though, seemed to her likely to pervert the authenticity of the unit, and even undercut what her teaching had really taught. What could she do? she asked some older colleagues. Their advice, as teaching practice often does, sidestepped stark choices. She should assign a single set of data to several small groups, they suggested, require each group to present a forecast drawn from the data, and allow each group to hear all the other groups' forecasts. Then she should hand copies of all the reports to all the students the next day, along with the following assignment:

"These are the forecasts your colleagues prepared based on the data available to them. What they did not know, however, but which you now know, is that the winds have shifted (or a cold front is coming, etc.). Now, working individually with all the data -old and new -and faced with cameras now only forty minutes from rolling, create your own forecast."

Dilemma 5: Scaffolds Built of Courses or of Projects?

This dilemma demands, first, a metaphorical shift: to think of curriculum as scaffold rather than a route laid out. The difference honors a key uncertainty of teaching: that the teacher cannot know precisely how another mind may work. So she fashions broad intersections of subject and psychology -what she knows about earth science, what she senses about her kids. She rigs the scaffold, then the kids climb this way and that.

The best scaffolds offer kids a variety of cognitive approaches and a variety of domains, but also demand that they often integrate approaches and cross domains. Secondly, they offer a variety of social circumstances, particularly opportunities to work together and alone and to experience the territory in between, where groups form and fall apart. Finally, they offer a variety of learning settings, some of them quite apart from practical life beyond school, some of them deeply situated in practical life.12

The fifth dilemma of planning backwards addresses the design of such scaffolds. I claim that their structural constituents might well be variations of two common instructional mechanisms. One is the course, by which I mean a well-bounded set of intellectual experiences undertaken in company. The other is the project, by which I mean a focused intellectual task requiring initiative, independence, and stamina, undertaken within a mentoring framework.

This dilemma is a particularly difficult one to resolve, since few high schools today offer many genuine courses or genuine project opportunities. Even the terms of balance are missing here -the stuff out of which we might invent the structures we need. Of course, high school students typically spend nearly all their school hours in what are called "courses"; but these are really no such thing. The term is from another world, one in which, for example, an undergraduate might choose to undertake the discipline of reading eight nineteeth-century novels and writing three papers; or one in which I might choose to practice beginning conversational German with a like-minded group of adults on Wednesday evenings for ten weeks.

The most common high school version of the course, by contrast, involves little voluntary commitment, vague intellectual direction and boundaries, and too much time. Frequently it lacks all but the sketchiest syllabus, requires mostly passive involvement, and may meet every day for 180 days -so often that its presence tends to overwhelm its purpose. Meanwhile, it not only crowds out what I call true courses, but it also crowds out other kinds of intellectually productive groups, hybrids of course and project: the ensemble, the workshop, the studio, the laboratory. Things which are called by these names sometimes appear in master schedules, but the names dissemble; kids are often no more active there than elsewhere in high school.

High school students don't say that they are studying algebra or art -except perhaps at night, preparing for a test; typically they say that they're in Algebra or Art. In fact, the high school course may be best considered a mechanism to allot time and control activity. The school's chief instructional tool, it is also the chief custodial one; and the first function in most cases remains hostage to the second. This is especially true in schools that "track" or group students by "ability," and where, as a result, many "courses" are defined by their members' relative antipathy to the subject (Oakes, 1985; Lewis, 1990).

Meanwhile, the genuine project, chief mechanism of independent intellectual activity in so many other settings, is even rarer in high school than the true course. Howard Gardner (1989) makes an apt observation in this regard:

"To be sure, there is the ubiquitous "term paper" and, in some schools, occasional other projects as well. Yet these, too, are rarely treated with the sustained seriousness they merit. The assignment is given; at an agreed time, it is handed in, and a grade bestowed on it. Rarely is the assignment developed -a time-consuming but essential process in which initial goals and plans are discussed, interim attempts or "drafts" reviewed, criticism offered and responded to, the final product evaluated by a number of people, and then a new project planned (whether or not it is ever carried out)."

Of course, we have only recently thought it in the national interest to have anything but a tiny percentage of our citizens trained in project-worthy habits of mind. These select few have gotten their project training within the system's interstices -running the yearbook, managing the television studio, competing in the science fair, etc. We have been happy to orient the rest toward a punctual and dutiful "scholarship" that has more to do with the factory than the academy. And where our orientation efforts fail -and they often do ?© we try at least to keep the kids out of the hallways and off the streets. This widespread imperative of high school life -a product of converging pressures that are economic, social, and political; a product as well of some adults' fear of teenagers and others' misguided sense of their needs -has a deeply disturbing effect on the educative capacity of high school. Linda McNeil (1986, p. 209) calls it the contradiction of control and describes it thus:

"Teachers reducing content to rituals of lists, apologizing for assignments; students quietly engaging in minimum efforts for a course credit, doing the least to get by in school; defensive teaching, and its transformation of cultural content into "school knowledge" -it all brings us back to the Gryphon of Alice's Wonderland: 'That's why they are called lessons, because they lessen from day to day.'"

Sooner or later, the effort to hold all high school students to a common standard of excellence bumps up against the fact that the traditional structure of high school substitutes custody for intellectual productivity and, in its single-minded dedication to control, displaces the best means we have to teach kids well.

Some Essential schools are among the few who have already felt this bump and have begun to experiment with new scaffold design. As might well be expected, their experiments to date are less than conclusive. One school, for example, now requires its students to earn a final grade of "C" or better in each of a fixed series of shortened courses. Students who fall below "C" must either recycle back through the course or, with the permission of the instructor, complete an alternative project. The strategy has boosted student achievement in the school overall, but has also had negative consequences. One is a terrific scheduling problem; another is the loss of one of the school's founding features: heterogeneous groups of kids staying through several years with a single team of teachers; and a third is a fierce debate among the school's teachers and parents as to whether the opportunity to recycle saps the will of some students to get it right the first time.

Another Essential school has dared to break more boldly from the norm. It now has two divisions. In the first, corresponding to the traditional grades nine and ten, students learn in groups which stay together regardless of members' individual achievements. The groups are taught by an interdisciplinary team of teachers who design activities for the students that both explore domains and cross them. Then, at the end of these first two years of high school, students enter the school's other division, which occupies a variable period of time. Here they take courses, but are not assessed in them. Instead, they progress toward graduation by tackling and completing a series of projects which the courses are intended to support but not encompass. Their project portfolio may take one, two, or even three years to complete.

This design has definite benefits -time for group work, time for independence, time for difference. Yet it, too, may have some negative consequences: the stress of transition between divisions; the excessive apartness of assessment and course work; and vulnerability before the two most common (albeit shortsighted) measures of high school effectiveness: number of graduates in a four-year cohort, number of kids accounted for and off the street between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m.

Many more structural experiments like these two will be needed to find the right balance for this dilemma. And, as with the other dilemmas, one school's balance will prove to be another's imbalance, though schools can still learn from each other's experience. As with the other dilemmas, no amount of restructuring alone will be enough. Balance will depend as well on the school's development of the right ethos.

I have framed this last dilemma by means of two mechanisms which I call structural and which I claim are rarely found in high school. But both projects and courses are creatures of ethos as well as structure, and this especially accounts for their rarity. Imbued with uncertainty, they involve risk-taking and so require trust. Indeed, a good characterization of course is the thing I trust to get me where I otherwise could not go on my own; and a good characterization of project is the thing I trust I can construct from bare hunches, bold syntheses, and bits of direction from people who care. In both cases, I believe, trust can only arise within caring communities.

My colleague Gene Thompson-Grove has described the tense magic of the Brown course for student teachers, which time and again, she says, makes real teachers out of raw beginners by about the middle of the tenth week. "When neither they nor I could possibly believe they'd ever get there," she says, "I'd tell them to trust the course" (personal communication, 1991). They invariably would trust the course because they were members of a community that trusted them. In the same vein, I think of projects I have undertaken -even, for example, this essay -which seemed dishearteningly muddled or off track along the way, but which proved all the more productive in the end because I trusted myself to wander; and I trusted myself to wander because I work where some wandering is permitted.

So the last word in this essay is not about restructuring, but about something less in vogue: the struggle of a school community to construct an ethos built of trust.


  1. Ruscoe and Miller (1989) suggest that "smooth running" is largely a custodial operation, involving student control, class coverage, the accurate provision of lunches and yellow buses, and the avoidance of tort liability. To this list, I would add uninterrupted curriculum delivery: the counting out of uncontroversial textbooks, the cranking out of course hours served.
  2. See, for example, Tyack (1990) and Cuban (1990).
  3. This essay will explore the use of this strategy for change efforts within schools themselves. But, of course, the policy context for schools is much broader. Through its Re:Learning partnership with the Education Commission of the States, the Coalition also advocates planning backwards from the schoolhouse to the statehouse. More than a dozen states are involved at various levels in considering statewide backward planning efforts.
  4. This research is still in progress. All the school anecdotes included in this essay are drawn from it. The "dilemmas" are suggested by the earliest findings of this research and also by other research and experience in the Coalition of Essential Schools. Later findings may, of course, result in their revision ?© six or four dilemmas rather than five, for example.
  5. Toni Morrison told Bill Moyers (1990, pp. 59??60) in an interview: "All the books are questions for me. I wrote them because I didn't know the answer to something."
  6. Arthur G. Powell, who conducted the earliest research on "exhibitions" at the Coalition (Powell, 1986), reminds me that the exhibitions of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century academies were little more than public entertainment -the equivalent in their time of Friday night football in Odessa (personal communication, 1990).
  7. The schools that have imagined (and implemented) these exhibition plans are Sullivan High School in Chicago and Walbrook High School in Baltimore.
  8. I heard these questions from his students, and something like this response from Wigginton, on a visit to his classroom, Rabun County (GA) High School, September 1990.
  9. Nel Noddings (1984, p. 182) on caring: "Of first importance to the one-caring is relatedness. She is not eager to move her students into abstraction and objectivity if such a move results in detachment and loss of relation."
  10. In fact, I kept my cool judgment private. I was merely observing.
  11. Peter Elbow (1986, p. 152) says, "Only Socrates and Jesus were able to be immensely supportive and fierce in the same instant." He recommends that the rest of us try to alternate, instead. Another method, I'd suggest, is to share the roles with a partner.
  12. For insights into what makes a good scaffold, see Newmann (1991), Brown et al. (1989), and Perkins & Salomon (1989).


The Coalition of Essential Schools gratefully acknowledges the IBM Corporation and the UPS Foundation for their support of its research on Exhibitions.

This Article Appeared in Teachers College Record 94, No. 1 (Fall 1992).


Assessment, Planning Backwards

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